Monday, 13 November 2006

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The Saturday Night Exercise in Pointless Television Criticism: Dexter (I intended this post to be in the style of Wally's always-anticipated post-show wrap-ups—Now with 50 percent more hyphenation!—but I fear 1) insufficiently waxed banks and 2) one too many DayQuil cocktails gave it a bad case of wanderlust. A more cogent review of Dexter will be forthcoming if the show eventually earns it.) Showtime's new series Dexter may be the first television show to ever build drama by dipping its toes in the Nature vs. Nurture debate. At its center is Dexter "Dex" Morgan, a serial killer who daylights as a blood splatter analyst for the Miami Police Department. His father, Harry Morgan, was a cop and his sister, Deb Morgan, is a cop (and in the same squad as Dex, no less). Now, Dex is adopted. His father found him at an as-yet-undisclosed but likely-to-be-meaningful crime scene and raised him so well that he became a cop just like his sister. Only, unlike his sister, Dex is a serial killer. She shares her father's genetic makeup, so of course she should become a plucky female detective—but her brother? He is, to borrow the language of Cesare Lombroso's criminological positivism, a born criminal. Someone on Dexter's creative team even seems to have read some Lombroso, as its star, Six Feet Under's Michael C. Hall, possesses the traits—called atavistic stigmata—the discredited Italian sociologist associated with born criminals. Compare: Does Hall possess: A large jaw that projects forward? A low, sloping foreheard? A larger than average head? With larger than average ears? Small, beady eyes? A receding hairline? A scanty beard? Tight, drawn lips? Lombroso believed born criminals like Hall Dexter should be identified early and civilized, civilized, civilized until they became productive members of society. So did Harry Morgan, as the viewer learns in an endless parade of Father Knows Best-flashbacks in which he schools Dex on social graces and the curbing of innate sociopathic urges. Hunt and kill the deer, the father says, and your bloodlust will be sated. As the years pass, the ritualistic killing of legal game slowly evolves into murdering those who deserve murdering, beginning with Star Trek: The Next Generation's Denise Crosby. Crosby puts in a typically compelling performance as an "involuntary euthanasian" named "Harry's Nurse." Crosby attempts to euthanize Harry against his will, Harry informs Dex that she can be killed, then Dex kills her. A vigilante serial killer is born. The flashbacks in which the young Dex struggles to live up to "Harry's Code" are variously clichéd, unbearably clichéd and oddly moving. Shot with that lens Steven Soderbergh uses to create the illusion that the entire world is Mexico at dusk ...if you're outside and a press conference in the Seventies ...if you're not, unless you're brooding under this lamp: By turns, the world of Dex's childhood is muted yellow and harsh orange with sickly green undertones. At first, the flashbacks offer a welcome contrast to the pastel vomitorium that is ¡MIAMI! But it soon becomes apparent that the muted colors and sickly...
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Don't Worry, There's Enough Faint Praise Here to Damn Everyone From Robert E. Spiller's review of Anna Robeson Burr's Weir Mitchell: His Life and Letters (1929) in American Literature: This was, therefore, probably the right sort of book to write at this time, and it is safe to say that, unless the same sources are again available and are again sorted over and reprinted, the present biography will not be superseded, even though to its lack of balance we must add the faults of unnecessary bulk, indefinite bibliographical entries, and a totally inadequate index. Thus it is indispensable to any library which contains one or more novels by this distinguished and kindly old doctor who divided his attention among nervous women, salmon, and fiction. (314) Were I to rank critical slams, this one would be somewhere in the vicinity of Fish's masterpiece, albeit for different reasons. Fish merely denigrated Burton Weber for his contributions to Milton studies. Spiller attacks the very idea that someone would want to study Mitchell, much less compile an overlong, inadequately indexed collection of his autobiographical fragments and letters. Not that I agree with him, obviously. In 1930, when Spiller wrote this review, the critical community took Mitchell at his word. When asked whether he "would rather be remembered for [his] literary work or [his] medical work," Mitchell didn't hesitate, replying "Medical, of course!" And in the literary community, he would be remembered for his medical work—albeit a very small portion of it, popularized by a patient who'd failed to respond to his treatment. When I started this chapter, I did so not to defend Mitchell but to right the historical injustice done to him by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Why? I'm not entirely sure, but it seems to be the defining quality of my work. The problem is, it may land my work far outside the critical consensus and unlikely to be engaged by people working in the scholarly mainstream. A figure must not merely be but be thought important. I can easily demonstrate the former, but as the Spiller slams home, the latter may prove far more difficult.

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